Algarve Ria Formosa Natural Park

The Ria Formosa Natural Park extends along 60 km of the east coast of the Algarve between Ancão and Manta Rota, covering an area of ​​approximately 18,400 hectares, distributed in the municipalities of Loulé, Faro, Olhão, Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António.

Most of the natural park corresponds to the lagoon system of Ria Formosa, a chain of sandbanks and (sand) islands that extend more or less parallel to the coast and protect an elongated lagoon from the sea. This lagoon is home to a labyrinth of swamps, canals, mudflats and small islands.

Ria Formosa map

The Ria Formosa was formed about 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower than today and large amounts of sand accumulated at the foot of the continental shelf. These growing sandbanks are the origin of today's offshore sand islands with their wonderful, long beaches. (Ilha de Tavira, Ilha Deserta etc). At the same time, the watercourses within the lagoon brought large amounts of alluvial material, which settled within the lagoon and are therefore the origin of the salt marshes and the many small islets.

The area is a nesting place for many and a transit area for migratory birds on their way from Northern Europe to Africa. The interest in the natural park is not limited to the avifauna: it is an area of ​​great botanical interest, particularly for the vegetation of the dune and salt marsh areas ; the lagoon is an important area for mussel production, with more than 1,000 hectares of mussel farms accounting for about 80% of the country's exports. The Portuguese state recognized the national and international importance of this region and promoted its classification as a natural park. The main problems that endanger the fragile ecosystem in the Ria Formosa Natural Park are: illegal construction on the sand islands, the urbanization of the coast and the associated pollution with garbage and debris, the illegal dumping of waste, as well as the illegal discharge of domestic sewage. 

The 5 islands of the Ria Formosa

Ilha da Barreta - Ilha da Culatra - Ilha da Armora - Ilha de Tavira - Ilha de Cabanas

Sights & Excursions Ria Formosa

The most popular leisure tours are of course the crossing to the islands and a day trip to the lagoon of the Ria Formosa National Park or to the wonderful, long sandy beaches of the offshore islands. There are plenty of boat tours available from various departure points. There are also kayak tours or guided hikes to observe birds (birdwatching).

IMPORTANT: The individual islands can only be reached on foot or by boat.

The boats depart from different departure points. It is not possible to drive to the islands.

How to get to the islands of the Ria Formosa?

Starting from the cities of Faro, Olhao, Fuseta, Tavira and Cabanas, there are docks for boats and public vessels on the promenades. The journey is short, between 10 and 20 minutes. Only from the small town of Santa Luzia is it possible to get to one of the islands by foot (Ilha do barril). You cannot drive to any of the 5 islands.

The fishing town of Olhão

Olhão a traditional fishing village in the eastern Algarve not far from Faro. The city has a beautiful waterfront, a busy fishing harbor and a labyrinthine fishing district with cobbled side streets. Olhão opens to the tranquil waterways and lagoons of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa and the sandbar islands of Ilha da Armona and Ilha da Culatra.

Unlike other places in the Algarve, Olhão is less touristy and a busy place. The city has an authentic Portuguese feel. Although there are not many historical attractions, Olhão is an interesting destination for visitors who want to experience authentic Portugal.

Olhão is the largest fishing port in the Algarve. The red brick building with the striking towers is the market hall. There is a lot of activity here, with freshly caught fish sold in one building and meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables and other local products such as nuts, honey and herbs in the other. There are also cafes with tables overlooking the quay, ideal for sitting and watching the fishing boats. The riverbank is lined with palm trees and is also home to the beautiful gardens of Jardim Pescador Olhanense and Jardim Patrão Joaquim Lopes. The parks are a peaceful place to sit in the shade of the trees and watch the activities in the harbor. In Olhão there is of course a large selection of good fish restaurants

To discover the hidden charm of Olhão, the best way is to climb the tower, the igreja matriz or another viewpoint. Then the secret is revealed in the hundreds of houses whose roofs have been replaced by a terrace; the typical Algarve roof terrace, called Açoteia

-----> An açoteia is a terrace on a building that replaces the roof. It is mainly found in Algarve houses and can have various uses, from storing water, drying fruits to being used as a leisure space. There are many roof terraces in the city of Olhão. It was the Arabs who introduced this architectural element.

In front of Olhão lie the two barrier islands, the Ilha da Armona and the Ilha da Culatra. Here are also the beaches of Olhão. There is a ferry at the harbor or many water taxis for the short distance across the lagoon to the islands 

The TOP beaches around Olhao

The town of Olhao itself does not have a beach as it is located on the lagoon. So you have to take the boat to one of the offshore islands (journey time approx. 20 minutes). Anyone who doesn't shy away from this effort will be rewarded in every respect with outstanding beaches!

A day trip to Quinta do Marim

Quinta de Marim is located 3 km from the center of Olhão and is part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. The property covers 60 hectares with pine forests, sand dunes and mudflats. For a small entrance fee it is possible to visit the property including the interpretation center. An approximately 3 km long hiking trail with information boards gives visitors a good impression of the landscape of the Ria Formosa. The visit including the short hike takes just under 3 hours. Also suitable for families. The Ria Formosa Recovery and Wildlife Research Center (RIAS) is also on site and looks after injured animals. For many, the station is the main reason for visiting the property. The main building and the tidal mills show visitors how people used to work and live here.